On climbing trees and being still
Updated: Jul 20
When I was a child we had, on the border between our garden and Miss Crain's next door, a maple tree that was perfect for climbing. Since nearly everything in my world - animate or inanimate - was given a proper name, I named the tree Myrtle, after a great-grandmother. At five years of age, I wasn't aware that such a thing as a myrtle tree existed, and once I found out I kicked around the idea of changing my Myrtle's name. But by that point the tree was clearly Myrtle and I could no more think of her (for a she she was) with a different name than I could call my dog Schroeder "Constantine."
Climbing as high as I dared, I found that the world seemed slightly different from up in my tree than it did below. There was, of course, the reality of a visual vantage point changing what from the ground looked completely different, or, if not completely different, at least different enough to notice. The Burke's German Shepherd Lucky, all frightening fangs and snarls from below seemed quite placid from above, curling up in a donut shape not unlike my sweet Schroeder was accustomed to doing. The border between our garden and Miss Crain's - not noticeable at all from the ground - was distinctly marked, making it quite evident indeed that Miss Crain clearly did not share my father's obsession of perfectly green grass being short and tidy. Our front-yard sycamore trees which seemed to tower over everything, though still taller than Myrtle, did not appear as massive from where I was perched.
But more than the sights, what struck me most about being in my tree was how the world below sounded. Especially on warm spring nights, the symphony of life spilling out through open windows, muted only by the gentle swaying of gossamer curtains was intoxicating. The music of the Mamas and the Papas drifted up from Miss Crain's house, and it seemed as if Mama Cass was singing Dream a little dream of me just for me. Walter Cronkite faintly read out the news to people huddled in front of television sets and (far, far different than today) we knew we could believe him, and that faith in his goodness and honesty floated on the breeze. Kathy practiced the piano, a series of scales and sonatinas that let me know she was near, her music somehow making me feel protected. And then, as the sky began to darken, as mothers and fathers and grandparents and older sisters would shout for wandering children to come on home, the song of the locusts began providing their unmistakeable rhapsody of dusk.
Yes, more than the images I saw from my tree, what I know I'll never forget is the sound of the world below. And though down in that world I was a hyperactive, ridiculously loquacious lad, I discovered something important up in my tree: it was only in being quiet, in adding nothing to the symphony below save my own breath, that I could fully appreciate it. My stillness opened my heart to it all: the dreams, the goodness, the honesty, the protection.
And though the world below would sometimes offer things I wished not to hear - the cries of pain, the wailing of sirens, the silence of death - I knew that what I heard in that tree could fortify me, make me hear the lush melodies of the dreams, the goodness, the honesty, and the protection even when then ugliness of the world would play for me other tunes.
I just had to be still.
So often people ask me about the efficacy of prayer. Does God really listen to us? Of course he does, I reply, even as I know my response is heavy with the weight of unanswered prayers. But prayers are answered - and even sometimes in the exact way that we want them answered - so I feel a need to make mention of this too.
But I frankly don't keep at it because of the times when God has answered my prayers in the manner that I clearly think he ought to have done. And I don't keep at it because I promised twenty-seven and a half years ago to do so. I keep at it because I know that in such stillness my heart can be opened to the dreams, the goodness, the honesty, and the protection that can only come from God.
Be still and know that I am God the Psalmist sings. He does not promise that we are going to get everything we want. He does not promise that we will not have to face the unpleasant clangour of a hurtful world. He does not say we will always be able to avoid the din of loneliness, anxiety, suffering, confusion, and loss. But he does suggest that in this symphony of stillness we will know God: God, whose melody as hummed through his Word envelops us and makes us dare to trust in his dreams, his goodness, his honesty, and his protection.
This is why we pray. And may we continue to do so until God shouts for us, his wandering children, to come on home, the song of the saints providing their unmistakeable rhapsody of salvation.